Sunday, July 25, 2010

November 1, 2009: ‘I, Doll: Life and Death with the New York Dolls’

The Rock & Roll autobiography is a pretty tricky venture to pull off. A great songwriter cannot necessarily make the transition to prose, as Bob Dylan’s Chronicles and Dave Davies’s Kink bear out. The only truly great Rock autobiography I’ve read is X-Ray by Dave’s brother Ray, which finds the lead Kink perfectly adapting his highly literate lyricism to a book that is creative (the Kinks’ early history is framed in an Orwellian sci-fi parable), informative, and witty.

Having said all this, it’s no surprise that the memoir of bassist Arthur “Killer” Kane—who wasn’t even among the New York Dolls’ chief songwriters (according to the credits on their albums, not Kane’s widow Barbara who contends that he co-wrote much of their material)—is poor. By many accounts, Kane was a lovely fellow (well, not when he was drunk or griping about his band mates), so I get no joy out of writing that the majority of I, Doll: Life and Death with the New York Dolls is basically unreadable. Kane’s cutesy delivery makes this tale of drugs, womanizing, and touring read like the diary of a Rock & Roll Howdy Doody, and it keeps him from fully conveying why the Dolls were such a unique group—and they were extremely unique in their groundbreaking, drag-queen stage dress and straight-from-the-gutter attitude that inspired legions of punks. Stories about the boys being hassled for their outrageous attire or the death of original Doll Billy Murcia are rendered as consequential as long, dull descriptions of shopping in vintage stores because it’s all delivered with the same silly, punning language. A saving grace arrives about three quarters into the book when Barbara Kane takes over her late husband’s narrative. Barbara’s writing is clearer than Arthur’s, and her stories are far more interesting—she dishes on memorable run-ins with Dee Dee Ramone, Pete Townshend, and Sid Vicious. She also details her relationship with her husband after he became an alcoholic, and it’s a pretty terrifying portrait of the man, even as she continues to profess his sweetness and her love for him. Barbara’s portion of I, Doll will make it essential reading for Dolls fanatics. Others should probably just check out Greg Whiteley’s documentary New York Doll.

Buy it here: I, Doll: Life and Death with the New York Dolls
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